It was only a few months after I turned ten that I discovered the world. Before this time, I had spent most of my life in Brownsville, feeling as remote and isolated as you could growing up in the last city in Texas. One of our few excursions from home was driving across the international bridge to Matamoros so I could get what my father considered a “decent” haircut, by which he meant a very short haircut that cost less than a dollar, tip included. The barber would bring out a special cushioned board and lay it across the armrests of the chair. Then I’d climb up and sit still for my haircut, waiting patiently during those times when the barber had to stop and make a ss-ss-ss sound at a pretty girl passing in front of his shop. Afterward, my father and I would walk to Plaza Hidalgo, where he could get his boots shined and I could buy a candy from the man standing on the corner with the big glass case. I always went for the calabaza candies, which were made of a rich pumpkin and looked like jewels extracted from deep within the earth.
As far south as we were, I knew there was a world beyond Brownsville because my sister and two brothers had left town years earlier. When we drove to Houston to visit my brothers, one of them would take my mother to the mall so she could shop at the big department stores we didn’t have at Amigoland Mall. After shopping, we’d go back to my brother’s house, eat, rest, maybe eat again, maybe watch TV, and then go to sleep. A couple of days later, we’d get in the car and drive back to Brownsville. My parents weren’t interested in seeing Houston. Houston was a big city with a lot of freeways where they were bound to get lost, and did, every time we visited, which was how I ended up seeing more of the city. My parents traveled to Houston to visit family, not to be running around getting lost. They had no interest in the roller coasters at Astroworld or ice-skating at the Galleria or anything else. My father worked as a livestock inspector for the USDA and spent a good part of his day patrolling the Rio Grande on horseback to make sure horses or cattle weren’t being crossed into the country. During his rides he had been startled by rattlesnakes, bucked off his horse, and shot at by drug smugglers—he didn’t need any more excitement in his life. Besides, it was usually hot in Houston, and he hadn’t worked out in the sun the other 51 weeks of the year so he could drive to another city to sweat on his vacation.
I should mention that my parents were older than most parents with a ten-year-old in the house. My mother was 52 and my father was 60. Being older, they had developed certain habits that weren’t going to change. For instance, my father believed in sticking to certain meals. Food fell into three distinct categories: Mexican food, which he could eat every day and die a happy man; American food—meals like hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken—which we ate occasionally; and other people’s food, which included all food he refused to eat. Whenever I suggested trying something different, like Chinese food, he’d look at me as if he and my mother might have brought the wrong baby home from the hospital.
As I understood it, this was my father’s unstated philosophy: We have our food—fajitas, tamales, tacos, enchiladas. It took our people many years to develop these foods. We even have two kinds of tortillas, flour and corn. One day you can eat flour, the next day corn. So tell me why you want to eat other people’s food? Leave their food alone. The chinos have their own food. They like that white rice. But do you see them eating our rice with those little sticks? No. The Germans, I don’t know what they eat, but whatever it is, that’s their business. The Italians, they like to add a lot of spices. I tried it one time and it gave me agruras, and then there I was, burping all night. Your mother had to make me an Alka-Seltzer. And you want to eat other people’s food?
All of which meant that if my father ate carne con papas, I ate carne con papas. If he ate picadillo, I ate picadillo. If he ate taquitos, I ate taquitos. And so on, until 1974, the summer my sister, Sylvia, invited me to stay with her in Austin for two weeks. She and my brother-in-law were in their early twenties, and my nephew was only a year old. One of the first things we did in Austin was walk around the University of Texas, where my sister was a student. Then we rode the elevator all the way up to the top of the UT Tower, and I felt my ears pop for the first time. From the observation deck, I saw tiny people walking around on the street, but I couldn’t tell which were the hippies and which were the ones with short hair. Some of my sister’s friends wore their hair long, like the hippies I’d seen around town. Rolando had a handlebar mustache and hair down to his shoulders. He was the funniest of my sister’s friends, and the smartest. You could ask him any math question, and he’d answer it like he had a calculator stuck in his head. “What’s fifty-six times seventeen?” I’d ask him. And he’d go, “Nine hundred fifty-two.” That fast. Rolando came along the night we played putt-putt. He beat all of us because he knew how to hit his ball so it would go under the windmill just right. When we finished playing, he asked me if I wanted a souvenir. I said yes, thinking he was going to buy